KENYA: Tracing roots of conflict in Laikipia

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Many parts of Kenya experienced violence for the first time after the disputed December 2007 presidential elections, but Rift Valley's Laikipia region has been embroiled in conflict for generations.

So much so that many Laikipia residents differentiate between the "usual" violence and the poll-related kind.

Francis Wambua, the Laikipia branch chairman of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), who has lived in the area for more than 30 years, says the region often experiences clashes between pastoralists and cultivators or between different groups of pastoralist communities.

Wambua said KRCS has recorded at least 19,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Laikipia East and Laikipia West since January. The more than 9,000 IDPs in Laikipia East are mostly from Rift Valley province, while a similar number in Laikipia West are residents of the area.

At least six communities live in the larger Laikipia region, which is made up of three districts; Laikipia East (the capital in Nanyuki); Laikipia West (Nyahururu) and Laikipia North (Dol Dol). These communities are the Kikuyu, Maasai, Kalenjin, Turkana, Samburu and Pokot.

The conflict over grazing land is experienced in all three districts.

"Often there are raids between the Samburu and the Maasai and between the Samburu and the Pokot; the Turkana are often used by either side of the warring communities in their quest for better grazing land," Wambua said.

He added: "Livestock thefts are another source of conflict in Laikipia; whenever a raid occurs, those who lose their cows then undertake a counter raid to recover the stolen cows or to restock their herds.

"The raids over grazing land are often exacerbated by drought when the rains are inadequate to accommodate the grazing needs of the pastoralists. This conflict cuts across all the communities and can be differentiated from what transpired in the past month in Laikipia West."

Violence rocked Laikipia West in March, as two communities - the Tugen and Turkana – clashed with the dominant and mainly farming community of the Kikuyu, leaving at least 25 people dead and more than 8,000 displaced. The violence was allegedly sparked by an incident in which a suspected Turkana rustler was killed.

At a peace and reconciliation meeting for Laikipia West, held on 26-28 March in Nyahururu town, leaders said the latest violence in the district was unlike past conflicts because two pastoralist communities had joined forces to fight one farming community.

Paul Thairu, the civic councillor for Rumuruti - which bore the brunt of the March violence - told IRIN: "We have been holding peace meetings in urban areas but when we go back home, we find fighting going on between our communities; we must get to the root cause of this situation if meaningful peace is to be achieved."

Thairu said he believes the violence in Rumuruti was planned but he declined to name those behind the clashes.

"It seems this fighting was planned and was to have taken place alongside all the others that were experienced in other parts of the country but it was not possible earlier because of the meetings we were holding to encourage peace," he said. "I believe the youths who took part in the violence were paid, in fact some from this area were ferried to other parts of the country to cause chaos following the announcement of the election results."

Widespread violence broke out after President Mwai Kibaki was controversially returned to power on December 30, with the most serious clashes affecting the Rift Valley.

However, nominated councillor John-Bosco Lorinyok Epur disagreed with Thairu. He attributes the Rumuruti violence to ethnic animosity.

"As far as I know, the violence started when a Turkana man was killed after he was allegedly found with stolen goats; what I would like to know is why would the death of one person lead to the deaths of dozens of others if there wasn't more to the incident than meets the eye?" Epur said. "It is the mistrust and suspicions between the Kikuyu, on the one hand, and the Turkana and Tugens on the other, which has caused all these problems."

Most Kenyans have a very strong sense of ethnic identity, not least because politicians campaigning ahead of elections tend to reinforce “them and us” as a vote-winning strategy.

Epur said the Turkana community has maintained that the man who was killed was not in possession of stolen goats.

"There is need to apprehend the killers of this man, otherwise we will continue to believe that the violence that ensued was more to do with ethnic differences than just the incident," he said.

Laikipia West district commissioner, Frederick Chisia, said vernacular FM radio stations and other media heightened ethnic divisions ahead of the 27 December 2007 elections, leading to an increase in "negative ethnicity" in the aftermath of the polls.

"There is no single community in this country that can stand on its own, we are all interdependent on one another and the sooner all communities in Laikipia West recognise this fact, the better," Chisia said.

He said although the violence had slowed the district's development pace, the government had taken measures to bring peace, including the deployment of Administration Police troops, peace meetings and encouraging dialogue between the warring communities.

"We have identified opinion leaders in each community and we are encouraging them to talk to their people about the importance of maintaining peace; this may be slow and time-consuming but in the end we hope to achieve lasting peace," he said.

Source: IRIN